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New Zealand Institute of Architects









Yvonne’s House

This essay was Highly Commended in the Open Category of the 2016 Warren Trust Awards for Architectural Writing.

By Graeme North

Journeys start in many ways. Some with a first step. My architectural pathway opened up by sitting down. I was contemplating the universe from a gravestone in Auckland’s Grafton Gully, in 1971, long before the gully became a motorway. It was a sunny day amongst the trees, on someone’s cold memorial, the buzz of traffic overhead a faint reminder of others.

It was a second-year freehand drawing class by the exuberant Pat Hanley, assisted by ‘Speed’ Quinn. Speed claimed the longest time to gain his architecture degree, something like 12 years, a boast usually followed by Beat that, you academic bastards!

Speed, 6B pencil in hand, plonked down beside me, and together we contemplated the universe.

Whatcha doing over the summer?
Dunno. Getting out of Auckland.
Want to come and help me build?
Up north.
Tell me more.

And so I headed north, to the rundown shack that Speed lived in, beside the Whangarei Harbour.

Next day we drove along the harbour, through miles of dirt road to the very end of a remote peninsula. Along chugged a red VW dune buggy. Hanging out the window was a large rugged face, and when the door opened a powerful but kindly woman emerged. 

Meet Yvonne Rust.

On the back of the buggy sat an enormous black Labrador. This is Spider.

So there I was, in the middle of nowhere, thankful that this large beast appeared friendly and had only four legs.

What can I do round here?
Go and look at the beach!
What’s the fishing like?
Don’t know, but here’s a fishing line.

So I scrambled down through the scrub to end up beneath an ancient p¯ohutukawa draped over a small cove. A sand spit separated this beach from the sweep of the next bay. I went out onto the spit, threw out my line, and retreated back under the tree.

What’s this place going to be like over summer?
A two-kg snapper! This will do!

And so it began. We built retaining walls out of old telegraph poles, and waited for Speed to work out what we were going to build next. Barry Brickell arrived in his launch to help Yvonne build her kiln. Yvonne was starting a new career after retiring from teaching high-school art. She dreamed of being a fulltime studio potter, but first she needed a studio.

I helped, and I fished. Speed wasn’t true to his nickname and his final drawings never eventuated. I helped Yvonne procure a shed that could cover the kiln.

It was a great summer. Yvonne, Spider and I became great mates. Yvonne taught pottery at summer schools to topless women and lusting men. It was the ’70s, after all. The Fri, an 80-foot Baltic trader sailing ship, came in to be careened on the beach. This was the start of its journey to Mururoa to lambast the French nuclear tests.

Life was good and life was fun. Yvonne’s thoughts turned to her house. It was obvious that Speed was never going to get anything drawn so I offered to design it. The arrogance and cheek of youth.

Yvonne wanted a house made from clay. I designed a north-facing house of rammed earth, ex-glassworks kiln bricks, reused bridge beams, a floor of railway sleepers – all tucked under two counterpoint inverse curved roofs with sweeping kauri-sarked ceilings inside. To the west, a huge circular window was also an enfolding seat, a visual connection with the large p¯ohutukawa outside.

At the District Council counter the design was condemned. My wife would hate that! was the verdict of the Plumbing and Drainage Inspector. The toilet and bathroom/laundry were off a sheltered back verandah. He shook his head and repeated his judgment, in case I was dim.

Does it comply? I asked. In case he was dim, I repeated my question.

But it did comply. The house was under way. Builders were helped by friends, students and local farmers. I helped ram earth walls, adzed hardwood timbers, laid bricks, made doors. Those were the days when an aspiring architect was not afraid to take off his shirt and knock down bricks to rebuild inaccurate work. We all lived in the studio while the house slowly grew.

I returned to architecture school after a year away to continue my degree to be met with po-faced derision. I was supposed to be learning, not doing. I left for another gap year. The house became a gathering place. People were drawn by Yvonne’s skill, warmth, kindness and extraordinary generosity. Generosity given was repaid when a kiln fire meant that the studio building needed to be rebuilt.

In 1976 I returned from a few months’ exploring Europe to help build, but also to spend time learning the business of manipulating clay into ceramics. The precision involved in firing the down-draught kiln – hot, dangerous work – was a skill I relished.

Pots were produced in large numbers. Peter Sinclair, a well-known TV personality, came to buy pots for his shop in Ponsonby. Who are you again? Yvonne did not have the time or inclination to watch TV. It was difficult for Peter not to get clay on his white strides. Spider slurped from his mug of tea but no one said a thing.

The house was completed and came alive. Hundreds of colleagues and friends partners came and went, students, apprentices, love affairs, funerals and weddings. Not to mention the copious amount of red wine scoffed at great volume from Yvonne’s pottery goblets while ensconced in huge antique armchairs. The chairs and sofa were the only major items rescued from the studio fire, and they finally took up residence in the house.

Heated discussion nearly solved all the world’s problems, artistic and political. There was no time for any ‘isms’ apart from patriotism. God help you if you did not want to save the Queen. The kitchen produced vast quantities of lavish food. It featured a large kahikatea butcher’s block. Yvonne could not be bothered with chopping boards. I was instructed to carve a large bowl into its top surface.

A mixing bowl for scones.

Everyone who came had to be given tea and scones and sometimes there were hundreds of visitors a day.

Yvonne started to get up at 3am to work in peace and quiet. The morning I woke up with a family of four standing around my bed – We heard you got up early so we came early to have a look – did not induce one of my finest moments.

Yvonne painted a wonderful mural in her bedroom using paint she made from clay and linseed oil. It features all the little children that her young friends around her were producing in the early ’80s.

Yvonne had her house made from clay and natural local materials. My first house was built, and my career in natural building launched.

A few years passed. Reluctantly, in 1985 Yvonne sold the house and moved away. For 30 years I did not see the house nor know what had happened to it.

At Yvonne’s funeral in 2002 I spoke after Raymond Hawthorne’s eulogy. Who else would have put me in that position? Trickster to the last! I said I was amazed that a 50-plus year-old had had that much confidence in a 21-year-old to let him design her a house. I inherited the chairs. I sit in them every day.

In 2015, I found myself near Parua Bay. On a whim I went to look for the house. Off I went down the dirt road, searching for the unrecognisable turn-off. That pitted muddy track I learnt how to control skids on was now a well-formed road. And then there was the task of identifying the right driveway. The trees had all grown up and everything was different. But finally, Yes, this is it. I wonder who owns the house now? Do they have a Rottweiler? Will they be friendly? Look how all the trees have grown. I planted those ones!

Out of the car. From out of the garden comes a woman. Friendly. Graeme – I have always wanted to meet you – not a day goes by when I don’t thank you for this wonderful house. Come in. Look around. We have only recently closed in the verandahs. This had been done well.

Taking in the house, it is flooded full of memories. There is the small round stained-glass window I made. The billowing ceiling. The floor I finished with the adze given to me as a family heirloom in Somerset. The adzed rimu doors I built. The glass encrusted bricks I helped select and lay. The thick embracing earth walls. The enormous hardwood bridge beams that we drove miles to obtain.

I sat for a moment in the window seat in the large round window, sipping tea, remembering Yvonne doing the same, looking out at the p¯ohutukawa in bloom.

Walking through to the main bedroom, the mural of all the cherubs in swathes of clematis is still there. I think that redheaded one is my daughter.

Read this essay and nine others in 10 Stories: Writing About Architecture / 2 available for $15 + postage in the NZIA shop